Hopping in planes and inking deals to expand the footprint of music streaming service Spotify was a way of life for Chief Revenue Officer Jeff Levick, until he said goodbye to the company in 2016.
Now, Levick serves as chief executive of sports media company The Players’ Tribune. It’s a new position for the New York-based startup and for Levick.
“The first time a company is bringing in an outsider to run the company, it’s a really big deal for the business [and] for the founders,” Levick says. “My only thought as CEO is about the business and the employees. It’s been interesting as a first time CEO to see how your perspective in terms of what’s important to you shifts.”
The Players’ Tribune is a home for professional athletes to share their stories and insights into the business through video series, podcasts, and long- and short-form first-person stories.
The website has made waves in the industry with stories like Kevin Durant announcing his move from Oklahoma City Thunder to the Golden State Warriors, which garnered more than 3 million unique visitors the day it published. But co-founders Jaymee Messler, former chief marketing officer at Excel Sports Management, and retired New York Yankees star Derek Jeter tapped Levick last fall to help it expand its reach and create new revenue streams—a challenge facing nearly every media company today.
It’s already raised $58M from investors such as NEA, Bryant Stibel Venture, IVP, and Alphabet’s venture arm, GV.
The site earns money through sponsored and branded content from clients such as Gatorade, Samsung, and more recently, Pepsi but it’s now eyeing licensing and entertainment deals. For example, it’s currently developing a feature film about former National Football League player Vernon Turner’s life after he published a story about his upbringing and mother’s drug use in 2016.
Levick declined to provide specifics on future projects but the focus is to help share the voice of its athletes.
“My job is to help transform [The Players’ Tribune] and expand what it does, expand the revenue lines, the different products and expand geographies with a healthy respect to the core reason the company exists, which is to amplify the voice of athletes,” he says.
Top of the Rock
Levick’s knack for spotting opportunity dates back to his first job at 15 in his hometown of Atlanta.
The avid rock climber teamed up with a friend to start a business that would help pay for their pricey gear.
“We figured out a way to pay for our ropes by setting up a gutter cleaning business in the summers, which was quite lucrative,” he says. “We would just go from McMansion to McMansion offering our services. We’d tie up to the chimneys and repel down and clean the gutters using our climbing rope.”
Levick spent his summers climbing thanks to the outdoor adventure program Wilderness Ventures. He also participated in an advanced mountaineering course through the nonprofit National Outdoor Leadership School.
He credits his love of climbing with giving him the confidence to handle tough situations as well as his late mother, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was 12 years old.
“Between climbing and my mom, it was sort of like failure was never really an option in my household—you just had to figure it out,” he recalls.
Itching to leave the South and break into journalism, he enrolled at New York University and quickly worked the media circuit to land internships at outlets like Good Morning America. But Levick switched to political science his junior year after a professor, the late Edwin Diamond, gave him a reality check about the low odds of raking in a hefty salary.
“When people tell me how they think about their career, I always tell them you should think about it in terms of time frames and rate of returns,” he says.
But the chief executive was quick to add that he’s now in a position where his ambitions are less about his career trajectory and more about the needs of The Players’ Tribune.
“I think about this as the most selfless I’ve been in a job where I’m trying to put all of my thinking and attention and energy just solely on the business,” Levick says.
The roughly one-year break between his old gig at Spotify and his current post helped provide time for Levick to rediscover his own passions.
“The best way to figure out what to do next is to create space between you and the next thing and that’s what I did,” Levick says. “I didn’t used to unplug. I now think it’s super important.”
While working under Spotify co-founder and chief executive Daniel Ek, Levick helped grow its ad business from $20M when he started around 2011 to a whopping $400M, as well as expand its presence from 13 countries to 60 at the time of his departure five years later.
“I was on a plane traveling the world helping to light up new markets and grow the business as fast as we could,” he says.
But it also meant the father of two was often away from his children, now 14 and 12, and his wife, Kate.
Levick said traveling was a necessary part of the job but with the help of his wife the couple found ways to create balance. Early on, he committed to calling his kids before bedtime.
“No matter what time zone I was in, I would never miss saying goodnight to them before they went to bed,” he says. “I may have missed it once but it was something I really worked so hard [at] to always talk to my kids.”
Now that they’re older he connects with them through their favorite channels, from Snapchat to FaceTime.
Plus, the family also has its own farm in Washington, Conn., for weekend getaways. Levick says the second home was initially a plan by his wife, who didn’t want their kids to recall family holidays inside a New York City condo. But it quickly turned into a weekly ritual—every Friday the family packs up and drives the roughly 88 miles to the 40-acre home.
“I’ve flown in from JFK and had a taxi take me to a gas station where my family would pick me up—we’re that religious about going,” he says. “I grow big gardens and every year I learn a little bit more and I do a little bit more. It’s just relaxing, cathartic, good for me.”
Levick credits Ek for teaching him how to take time out for himself, adding that Spotify had a singular focus on growing its business but also encouraged employees to spend time with family and take vacations.
Coupled with his experience heading sales and advertising strategy for Google then AOL, he said his time at Spotify helped train him for his current role. He saw a chance to get in on the ground floor of a disruptive business, much like his previous firms.
“I was passionate about it and I felt I could add value,” he says. “Our ambitions are to disrupt at a larger level the way fans engage with athletes—that’s the opportunity for the players at The Players’ Tribune and that’s solely what we’re focused on.”